Morris Milner on technology

Noted biomedical engineer Morris “Mickey” Milner earned his Ph.D. in electrical engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. As a faculty member there, he initiated a biomedical engineering research program and first visited Canada in 1967 on a sabbatical leave at the National Research Council. Since then, he has held numerous academic posts in South Africa, the United States and Canada.

Journal: Why did you choose biomedical engineering and rehabilitation medicine as a career path?

Milner: Well, my first child was born with cerebral palsy. ... Our baby, I guess, was several months old, and then we discovered she wasn’t passing the regular milestones. ... And this opened my eyes to the issues surrounding problems in medicine and so on, and I could never get answers from the doctors that would satisfy me. So this prompted me to start looking and to do some research into this kind of condition.

What have been some of your more rewarding projects?

Well, most of them relate to the range of electric limbs: hands, wrist rotators, elbows. Now, when you say, “you designed,” ultimately, I have a team of players, and they are specialists in different areas. ... I’ve often received credit for things that I’ve just facilitated, rather than actually done.

What’s your favourite part of the work that you do?

Well, now it’s watching young people evolve and develop. I mean, in the last decade or so, I’ve become more of an administrator than a researcher, so you develop skills on how to capitalize on resources and link people together. So I’ve found that quite thrilling.

So part of it is your actual work and part of it is your volunteer contributions?

Oh, on the volunteer front I’m involved with a lot of organizations. Essentially, I retired three years ago, but I’ve been doing three days a week where I used to do four or five. ... I guess it’s a feature of people who work in social services: it’s very hard to say no! Although I’ve learned more to say no in recent times than I ever used to.

And especially now that you’re officially retired, I guess you’ll want to take some time for yourself.

Well, my wife suggests that I should do more of that, but, you know, I have habits that are very hard to break. (Laughs.)

Through all the work that you’ve done, did you find you were able to help your own child as well?

Well, unfortunately, she died at age three.

I’m sorry.

So we lost her. She actually died in my arms—she had a grand mal seizure ... but it opened my eyes to so many issues. I mean, the pressures faced by families, the burden that it places on—particularly the mother, because, you know, I had to be at work to keep bread on the table, while my wife had to bear the brunt of clinical appointments and so on. ... Part of my career at Bloorview MacMillan was understanding what family needs were and taking the results of research and transforming them into services.

Do you think Ontario is reasonably well off compared to other jurisdictions with regard to funding assistive technologies?

In terms of relativity, I think we do extremely well, but we still have a heck of a long way to go.

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